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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • density independence;
  • environmental stochasticity;
  • Peary caribou;
  • population dynamics;
  • population viability analysis;
  • simulation model

Abstract

Peary caribou Rangifer tarandus pearyi is the northernmost subspecies of Rangifer in North America and endemic to the Canadian High Arctic. Because of severe population declines following years of unfavorable winter weather with ice coating on the ground or thicker snow cover, it is believed that density-independent disturbance events are the primary driver for Peary caribou population dynamics. However, it is unclear to what extent density dependence may affect population dynamics of this species. Here, we test for different levels of density dependence in a stochastic, single-stage population model, based on available empirical information for the Bathurst Island complex (BIC) population in the Canadian High Arctic. We compare predicted densities with observed densities during 1961–2001 under various assumptions of the strength of density dependence. On the basis of our model, we found that scenarios with no or very low density dependence led to population densities far above observed densities. For average observed disturbance regimes, a carrying capacity of 0.1 caribou km−2 generated an average caribou density similar to that estimated for the BIC population over the past four decades. With our model we also tested the potential effects of climate change-related increases in the probability and severity of disturbance years, that is unusually poor winter conditions. On the basis of our simulation results, we found that, in particular, potential increases in disturbance severity (as opposed to disturbance frequency) may pose a considerable threat to the persistence of this species.